Happily Passing the Torch: Elizabeth May on the Joys of a Smooth Succession

Elizabeth May

Click here to read this article in Policy Magazine

October 7, 2020

It took me by surprise last weekend that it was the election of the Green Party’s new leader, Annamie Paul, that prompted a surge in my direction of kind comments and farewells. It felt a bit baffling.

After 13 years, I stepped down as leader of the Green Party of Canada almost a year ago, and in the time since, the Green interim leader Jo Ann Roberts has actually been doing the job. The immediate transition accolades should be for her. The job (as I have not refrained from sharing) is a bad gig: No power within the party (a dose of moral suasion, but no actual ability to put your ideas into practice), but all the blame when things go wrong. So, Jo Ann got all that, plus handling a leadership race in a pandemic. She deserves to sleep until Christmas.

While I understand that people were waiting until a new, permanent leader was chosen to send me off officially, it still sneaked up on me.

On October 3rd, the evening of the vote count, I was totally astonished by a farewell video with entirely generous words from former Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin, my former Deputy Leader Georges Laraque, and many dear Green friends from R.H. Thomson to the elected leaders of our provincial cousins. Making my way to the stage for some thoughts about where we are and where we need to be, I felt more emotion than I’d expected — and still, the tension of not knowing who the new leader would be. He, she or they would need to accomplish much in a short-time for our party to be ready for an election.

When Annamie Paul was announced as the winner of a grueling contest among 10, and ultimately, eight candidates, I was thrilled. The Green Party had made history again. Electing the first Canadian of African descent, the first Black woman and the first Jewish woman to lead a federal party is a lot of “firsts.” But the reason I was so thrilled is that I have always known Annamie would be able to take the stage at a leaders’ debate and hold her ground — fearlessly. It must be noted that while many fine men were also running for leadership with whom I would have happily served, I am very happy that when our girls and young women look at the stage, it will not be 100 percent male.

All sorts of metaphors have been put to me. How do I feel about ‘Passing the torch’? ‘Letting go of the reins’? ‘Passing the baton?’ There’s only one answer — so very happy.

In Annamie, we have a great new presence in our political life. A keen intellect and the maturity of years in public policy, foreign affairs and human rights in settings such as the International Criminal Court and Canada’s delegation to the European Union have prepared her. I have full confidence in Annamie Paul as our leader.

In personal terms, as this final transition of leadership unfolded in real time, I felt a near-physical release. When the attention turned to Annamie as leader of the Green Party of Canada, I actually felt a weight lifting from my shoulders. As much as I’ve truly enjoyed the privilege of representing the principles of a cause I believe in so deeply, of meeting hundreds of thousands of Canadians from Corner Brook to Kamloops in the process, and of advocating for those people to make positive change, there’s a lot to be said for the graceful exit.

Elizabeth May and husband John Kidder on one of the countless train trips May has taken as Green Party leader.

All sorts of metaphors have been put to me. How do I feel about “Passing the torch”? “Letting go of the reins”? “Passing the baton?” There’s only one answer — so very happy.

My goal in stepping down from leadership was to be helpful to the next leader. I hoped to be part of a rarity in Canadian politics — successful succession planning. The last time an outgoing leader has welcomed a new leader was back when Alexa McDonough, with her seat in Parliament, made way for Jack Layton, new leader without a seat. The usual “succession” leaves blood on the floor from multiple knives in the back. I’ll leave it to readers to draw their conclusions as to what role gender plays in avoiding unseemly successions. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was the exception that proves the rule, though that may have been more about the overriding fondness for Shakespearean drama in British politics.

For the record, I am not retiring — at least not voluntarily! I plan to run for re-election in Saanich-Gulf Islands and to be in Parliament as part of a growing Green caucus. As ever, we live by our values. All decisions are made by consensus. Our current caucus of three has been diligent in working together to review each and every vote and every piece of legislation. And we are not required to all vote in the same way.

In that, we are committed to doing politics differently.
In thinking about the late John Turner and the last speech I heard him deliver, back in June 2019 on his 90th birthday, he again urged us to remember that “democracy does not happen by accident”. I think the way Greens do politics, from the grassroots up and not the top down, is exactly what Turner was talking about. He railed against centralized control of parties and governments, just as Greens do.

In our first press conference together, a reporter’s question to Annamie referred to the Green Caucus as “your MPs.” Without hesitation, Annamie said that we were not “her” MPs; that we would continue to work for our constituents, not for her. To which I said, “I may not be her MP, but she is my leader.”

That felt great.

Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, was leader of the Green Party of Canada for 13 years. She is currently looking forward to a safe and relaxing Thanksgiving weekend with family on her husband John’s Ashcroft, B.C. farm.